GEORGETOWN — Photographs of smiling and laughing children paper a wall in the office of the Birthright crisis pregnancy center.
Pawleys Island resident Len Vercellotti points to a small framed photo on the opposite wall. The inscription on it states: “Marita Joan Vercellotti, co-founder, forever in our hearts.” Many of the children in the pictures hanging opposite hers were born because of the organization that Vercellotti and his late wife started in Georgetown in 2002.
The Vercellottis worked with their close friend Lorraine Dwyer, members of Precious Blood of Christ Church on Pawleys Island, and Knights of Columbus Council 11028 to start the Georgetown Birthright program. The number of office visits surged from 12 in that first year to more than 500 in 2007.
Many of the women who visit the Front Street office are considering abortion, but change their minds after talking with volunteers.
Vercellotti said the volunteers learned quickly how successful they could be.
“Within a week of everything opening in 2002, a set of twins and a baby boy were saved,” he said. “Those were our first clients.”
Women facing crisis pregnancies can come to Birthright for non-judgmental counseling and assistance. Over the years, volunteers have helped mothers ranging from teenagers to women in their early 40s. Vercellotti said they face a variety of crises, from poverty and family abandonment to abuse. They all share one thing, however, and that is fear over how to deal with an unplanned pregnancy.
“People have trouble understanding what has been achieved here, the impact of the work that’s been done,” Vercellotti said. “It’s quite remarkable what about 30 volunteers have been able to keep going in a quiet way in the past six and a half years.”
Three years after Marita’s death, Vercellotti still spends many hours a week working as president of Birthright.
A native of Illinois, he lived in Pittsburgh, Pa., for more than 40 years where he worked for Westinghouse.
He and Marita became interested in pro-life issues in the early 1970s and joined a group at their church after Roe v. Wade passed in 1973.
Their focus continued after they retired to Pawleys Island in the late 1990s and joined a pro-life committee at Precious Blood of Christ. In 2001, the couple attended a presentation by volunteers from the Charleston Birthright office, and the idea to start their own was born.
Pawleys Island resident Terri Triana has volunteered at the Georgetown office since it opened, and served as its director since 2004.
“Len and Marita decided to do this in 2002, went to their support system for help, and it took off from there,” Triana said. “Its success is really a testament to their involvement in the pro-life movement.”
Vercellotti said about 90 percent of the center’s clients come from Georgetown County, while the rest travel from Horry, Williamsburg and other areas nearby.
Triana said volunteers try to set up a two-year relationship with the women they serve, following them through pregnancy, birth and the child’s first year. One of the main goals is to help single mothers learn to be self-sufficient.
“In addition to basic services, we try to provide them friendship, love and support,” she said. “We help them find resources in the community and resources in their own lives. ‘How do we capitalize on you?’ is the big question.”
They encourage the women to continue their educations. The volunteers often help by supplying gas cards and money so the mothers can make it to classes to complete their GED or attend college.
In recent years, client success stories have included women who completed training to become certified nursing, pharmacy and medical assistants. One client eventually opened her own restaurant.
“Any education is going to be helpful to the baby as well as the mom,” Triana said.
Birthright volunteers also help new mothers with baby supplies and basic household needs. The Georgetown office maintains a closet for maternity, baby and children’s clothes.
All of this work has resulted in 100 documented “saved babies” over the years, Vercellotti said.
“We consider a child to be a ‘saved baby’ when an abortion-minded woman has instead made a decision to carry the pregnancy to term,” he said. “This is a grassroots effort that’s all about helping the mother and giving these babies a future.”
Birthright International was founded in 1968 by Louise Summerhill, a Canadian homemaker and mother of seven who decided there should be more resources available for unwed mothers. It was considered the first international crisis pregnancy center, and now has more than 400 offices worldwide.
Birthright centers can be found in Columbia, Charleston, Greenville and Clemson.
To learn more about Birthright International, visit www.birthright.org. For local offices
go to www.catholic-doc.org/lovefor life/pages/Family%20Life/ birthright.htm.